John Singleton: Not Just One of the Boyz

First-time director makes it clear that he's not about to let Hollywood shaft him

American film director John Singleton as he poses inside a screening room, Los Angeles, California, 1991 Credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty

The audience at Harlem's Apollo Theater is notoriously hard to please, but on this night Ice Cube is wearing the place like a suit. The crowd yells every word of every song back to "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" gangsta rapper. The theater is getting sweatier by the minute. Then Ice Cube stops the show.

"How many of y'all seen Boyz n the Hood?" Cube asks, and the Apollo roars its approval for the controversial film in which he costars. "And how many thought it had a positive message?" Again, loud screams. "I want to bring out the man who wrote and directed the movie," Cube continues. "They're blaming this man for some brothers starting static at some of the theaters!" A compact, beaming young man ambles onstage, tossing Boyz n the Hood T-shirts to the cheering crowd.

"They clapped for me!" a still-astonished John Singleton says the next week, back in his native Los Angeles. "A filmmaker, not a rapper, from L.A., not New York, walked onstage at the Apollo, put my fist in the air, and they all pumped their fists!"

Such unexpectedly warm responses are becoming common for the 23-year-old Singleton. On the way to this interview, he ran into Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who began raving about Boyz, compared Singleton to Orson Welles and offered — practically begged — to contribute music to the writer-director's next project. In a ritual that was oddly appropriate for this meeting of young black cultural warriors, Reid removed a gris-gris (a protective voodoo locket) from around his neck and hung it on the visibly moved Singleton.

Not everyone, however, has taken so kindly to John Singleton or his movie. Though his debut feature about three friends' coming of age in the killing fields of South Central L.A. took in over $22 million during its first two weeks of release (maintaining a higher per-screen average than even Terminator 2) and won stunning critical notices, what most of America knows about Boyz n the Hood is that 33 people were wounded and one killed at theaters across the country on its opening night.

This movie about the tragic condition of the black American family, which opens with the warning "One out of every 22 black American males will be murdered each year" and ends with the blessing "Increase the Peace," is being condemned as a "gang movie." Boyz has come to represent black American cinema at a crossroads: An unprecedented number of movies by black filmmakers are being released this year — some tremendously successful — but violence outside theaters has led many observers to fear for the future of black film.

Singleton says the attention that's focused on violence is a smoke screen. "People in the media don't want to deal with the issues at hand," he explains. "They don't want to deal with the fact that the high crime and murder rates are directly related to the illiteracy problem, the homeless problem, problems in the American educational system." Theater security, he says, is simply a matter of finding the appropriate measures for potentially explosive films. He cites the Baldwin Hills Theater, a black-owned movie house near South Central, where the management installed metal detectors, addressed the crowd before each show and asked gang members to check their colors at the door. There were no incidents there, but, says Singleton, "you don't see them reporting that."

After the opening-night violence, some blamed the movie's preview for pandering to a hyped-up gang audience by promising an action-oriented film. Indeed, the trailer shows virtually all of the film's gunplay and spends little time on the powerful father-son relationship that stands as the movie's center. Singleton, who helped cut the trailer himself, stands by the strategy. "It got motherfuckers in the theater," he says. "That's the bottom line. If the trailer for Terminator 2 showed the part where he agreed not to kill anyone, nobody would have gone to see it." In fact, Singleton feels the tactic makes the movie's message even stronger. "People went with lower expectations; they thought it was the same old bullshit action-adventure in the streets of South Central L.A. But when they saw it was more, they really watched it."

The violence associated with the movie seems to have scared away (at least initially) the white audience that Columbia Pictures hoped to attract. But Singleton thinks the studio's obsession with crossing over is misguided, given that black Americans, who represent only 12 percent of the population, constitute a disproportionate 25 percent of the moviegoing audience. "Everybody else copies young black men," he says. "If I reach them, everything else will fall into place." Normally soft spoken and restrained, Singleton lights up when describing a recent trip to L.A.'s marina. "These little white kids came over, screaming my name," he laughs. "You know something's happening when you're a young black man making movies and a little white kid comes up and tells you, 'When I grow up, I want to be just like you!' "

When Singleton was growing up, his dreams were probably just as remote. In a story similar to Boyz's, he moved at the age of 12 from his mother's house to the home of his father, a mortgage broker, in South Central. Inspired by Star Wars and E.T., Singleton began devouring movies, fantasizing about someday making them himself. Then in 1986, the 18-year-old Singleton saw a movie called She's Gotta Have It, by a young director named Spike Lee, and everything changed. "That was the turning point in my life," he says. "I met Spike at the opening night in L.A., and it solidified everything I'd dreamed about already."

That fall, Singleton enrolled in the University of Southern California's filmic writing program. "USC was a cultural wasteland," he says. "Everybody wanted to get rich, but nobody wanted to work to get there." Singleton's purpose, however, was clear: "I wasn't into film to get money. I just wanted to make classic films about my people in a way no one had ever done." He began studying movies voraciously, transforming himself into a self-professed "filmic soldier" and twice winning the school's Jack Nicholson Writing Award.

During his senior year, Singleton was interning at Columbia Pictures, reading scripts ("wack-ass screenplays," he says, "straight-up booty"). He complained about the quality of the writing until the director of the program asked to read his work. She read two of Singleton's scripts and brought them to a friend at Creative Artists Agency one Friday.

On Monday, the agent called Singleton in for a meeting and announced that CAA wanted to sign him. Singleton coolly accepted, then drove to a gas station and shouted for joy. He was most excited, he says, "because I knew I could talk more shit at the film school."

As graduation neared, he met with Russell Simmons, the chairman of Def Jam Records, who was negotiating a production deal with Columbia Pictures. Simmons read Singleton's latest script — entitled Boyz n the Hood, after an N.W.A lyric — on the plane back to New York and immediately called Columbia's Jon Peters to express his enthusiasm for the project. Meanwhile, somebody at the studio began circulating a copy of the script. Boyz generated such a buzz that Columbia decided to offer Singleton, rather than Simmons, to a multi-picture deal.

Though Singleton had only directed a couple of Super-8 films before, he insisted that he be allowed to direct Boyz n the Hood in order to "protect his vision." Columbia Pictures chairman Frank Price was quickly persuaded. "A lot of people in this business don't respect vision — or even recognize it — because they don't have any," Singleton says. "But Price used to be a writer himself, so he still has it."

Singleton's perspective is one that remains unique in Hollywood. "I'm like a child born of two things — hip-hop music and film," he says. Along with his beloved movies, he credits Public Enemy's landmark album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with changing his life. The day after Ice Cube's Apollo concert, Singleton was part of a panel discussion entitled "Hip-Hop as an Art, a Style and a Culture," at New York's annual New Music Seminar, where he said: "The music reflects the condition of the culture. Film is an extension of the music." Growing up with hip-hop, he says, has given him a different relationship to the music than older directors can have: "A lot of these people doing so-called hip-hop films just do it about the culture. They think if they put the word homeboy in there 25 times, it's a cool film. In Boyz n the Hood, nobody's rapping, but it's a hip-hop film because it has the political as well as the cultural aesthetic that rings true."

Like his rapping contemporaries, Singleton has come under some fire for his depiction of women in Boyz. Though he denies any unfair portrayal ("There aren't really good or bad characters in my film"), he will turn his attention to "the politics of black love" in his next film. He is already halfway through a script about "the war between black men and women on the economic and sexual levels" set in South Central and Oakland. Singleton promises that his second film will be much more experimental visually – he's watching Buñuel, Fellini and Coppola movies for inspiration. "It's gonna be so good," he says. "Imagine Apocalypse Now with women!"

Singleton also notes the absence of women from the current black-filmmaking boom. "The power structure seems to want to keep black women from expressing themselves on a canvas as large as film," he says. He talks of using his production company to help women get their work to the screen, as well as possibly branching out to television someday. "The more of a hand I can deal in the media," he says, "the more power I have against a system that's trying to dehumanize my family."

It seems Hollywood may actually be open to Singleton's New Deal. This year, 19 movies by black filmmakers will be released, more than in the entire previous decade. Singleton sees this growth as representative of a more widespread change in American cinema. "In the late Sixties and early Seventies, everybody was asking questions of themselves and the society around them," he says. "So we had films that were serious and tackled issues, and it was profitable to do that because that was in vogue. Then in the Eighties we were told, 'Don't worry, be happy' by our government, and cinema reflected that. Now, they're still trying to tell us that, but we know we've got a lot of problems. Thought went out of vogue in the Eighties, but I think it's coming back."

John Singleton — driven, blazingly intense, focusing on the future even as the spectacular box-office numbers for Boyz n the Hood's second week roll in — knows that real credibility in Hollywood is hard to come by. His biggest fear is that the studios will sense a quick buck in the "Afrocentric new wave" and exploit it with inferior product. But he asks for no concessions. "Real acceptance comes when you make a good film, and it gets widely accepted as a good film," he says. "It's not about the novelty. Of course, there's a lot of new black filmmakers now, but I ain't no fucking novelty. I'm in it for the long haul. And if you ain't in it for the long haul, you ain't in it."